Many translations quite safely render El Shaddai as “God Almighty.” It’s a neat concept, one that feels safe. There is a conjecture that Shaddai is related to an Akkadian word for “mountain.” One possible implication is that mountains are mighty and they rise up high, so this is an idea of God Most High or Mighty God.
But mountains are also shaped like breasts. That may sound irreverent, but שַׁד shad occurs three times in the Bible meaning “breast” (Isa 60:16; 66:11; Job 24:9) and שַׁדִּים sha-deem “breasts” occurs another ten times. And שַׁדַּי Shaddai is not so different from שַׁדִּי shaddee (“my breasts”). Could El Shaddai refer to the God of nourishment as related to nursing with the breasts? Could there be some idea in ancient Hebrew and in the Canaanite culture of the god of the mountains (which look like breasts) who nourishes his/her children.
Modern people are generally uncomfortable with any idea of femininity in God. This is not a biblical concern at all. Genesis 1:27 says the image of God is in male and female. Some other words for divine emanations are feminine (רוּחַ Ru’akh, breath, spirit is feminine as is the rabbinic word שֶׁכִינָה Shekhinah, presence). Could one of the feminine pre-understandings of the Divine One be the nourisher of all, the God of the mountains/breasts of the land?
Shaddai is no minor title of God. In Exodus 6:3 we read that the patriarchs knew God primarily by this name. As Tamara Cohn Eskanazi says in the JPS Commentary on Ruth, Genesis 49:25 is an important background to the meaning of Shaddai, “The God of your father who helps you, And Shaddai who blesses you With blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that couches below, Blessings of the breast and womb” (JPS). In this verse the word “breasts” is שַׁדִּים sha-deem, so Shaddai gives the blessing of the sha-deem and the “womb”.
In Ruth 1:20, Naomi’s complaint against God is that Shaddai has made her lot bitter. The very area in which Naomi has suffered is in the perpetuation of her children. The children who nursed at her breasts are dead. And Shaddai, the God of the breasts, has made her lot bitter. The earthiness of this image of God, the hill-God representing breasts and nurture, is perhaps difficult for our culture to accept. And feminine notions of God are difficult for us to relate to after centuries of rejecting all notions of goddesses. But God is, if anything and especially for those who understand the priestly laws of Torah, the God of life — and women give birth to life in God’s order. The image of God is male and female and both aspects of human gender are sourced in him (I can say “him” because I accept the Bible’s usage of male pronouns as the primary mode of reference for God).
What do we learn from this in Ruth and the larger context of the Bible? All of us find our needs and even desires met in the person of God. The very human differences between male and female do not represent disunity, but differentiation with God’s own nature. And the ideas that people had of God before the revelation at Mt Sinai are not all wrong. The cosmos itself bears witness to God and Near Easterners and even Canaanites could see things which were completely acceptable to God’s Torah. The God of the mountains-nourishment is a true image of Hashem, God of Israel.